$33.9 million: Will task force get funding?

It’s the big chunk of new money in 2013-14’s K-12 budget proposal.

It’s also an open-ended line item. No one knows exactly where the money might go — which is the whole idea.

Gov. Butch Otter and state schools superintendent Tom Luna want to earmark $33.9 million for the governor’s education task force. This money would give the 31-member group working capital to enact education reform – that is, if elected legislators agree to cede the money to a board made up predominately of unelected education and business leaders.

On Thursday, Luna made clear that the stakes are high.

In his presentation to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, Luna said his proposed 2013-14 budget is flat, save for the task force money. And that’s essentially true: While the Luna budget earmarks dollars for everything from classroom technology to added math and science teachers to increased starting pay for teachers, its 3 percent general fund increase totals $38 million — not much more than the $33.9 million in question.

In a news conference after his JFAC presentation, Luna was blunt about the budgeting prospects. If legislators take that task force money out of the K-12 budget, “It’s not coming back any time soon.”

That decision starts with JFAC. And one of the budget-writing committee’s co-chairs has mixed feelings about the proposal.

Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, says she understands the logic of funding the task force efforts, but she doesn’t like seeing the $33.9 million parked in the K-12 budget. The money inflates the appearance of the budget — and, if Otter’s and Luna’s wishes are to be honored, it’s money legislators would leave untouched.

“It’s just sitting there, like a wart,” she said Thursday. “It’s troubling to me.”

Another potential trouble spot: What, if anything, will the task force agree to do with the money?

The task force has just barely begun its work. Its second meeting will be held today. (Click here for more information on today’s meeting). In order to come up with reforms in time for the 2013 Legislature, the task force would have to coalesce behind ideas within a matter of weeks, not months.

Sen. Dean Cameron, a Rupert Republican and JFAC co-chairman, said he’d be “shocked” if the task force came up with anything substantive for the 2013 Legislature. “In fact, I would almost discourage them from doing so.”

Otter assembled the task force to take a second look at school reform, after voters rejected Luna’s Students Come First laws. Luna sits on the task force, but on Thursday, he said he has no plan to go into a meeting with a specific plan for the money. Luna instead says his goal is simply to make sure these dollars wind up in education.

Could they end up elsewhere? Asked about this possibility Thursday, Luna dismissed the idea, since it means lawmakers would essentially vote to cut K-12 spending. “I just can’t go there.”

Related post: As the task force gets ready to meet today, Mike Lanza sets the stage for the discussion. The EDge blog.